Ten Tips for Eating Out with Young Kids

eating out with kids blog photo

We’ve all been afraid of being that table in a restaurant.

Aidan is more interested in playing musical chairs than sitting still in his. Josie refuses to use her inside voice. Luke and Lauren keep exchanging mac and cheese torpedoes across the table.

Eating out with young kids doesn’t have to be a stressful battle royale–with some planning and practice, your family can enjoy peaceful meals out.

Here are 10 tips for eating out with young kids

1. Practice at Home, First

In calm moments at home, take time for training before you venture out to a restaurant. Practice proper dinner manners by inviting stuffed animals or friends to a tea party or snack.

Role play good choices like sitting still, using utensils, and waiting patiently. And don’t forget the importance of emphasizing manners at the dinner table every night. Your kids will be better able to follow the rules when dining out when they know what’s expected of them at the table.

2. Choose Your Restaurant Carefully

This may not be the best time to try sushi at the trendy new place downtown. Before eating out with young kids, be realistic about your expectations.

Pick a restaurant where you know your kids will find something they like on the menu, and everyone can receive their food without waiting too long.

If your kids are small, try a place where small spills and messes aren’t a big deal–not a fancy place where you’ll be worried about the tablecloth and china–and the judgy couples all around you.

Restaurants with more activity often mean kids don’t have to try to speak in hushed tones–and the goings-on can give them something to watch, as well. However, keep in mind that restaurants with a lot of TVs can distract kids from conversation or eating their meals.

3. Respect Your Kids’ Attention Spans

This may not be the time to try a hometown favorite that’s so popular, you know you’ll have a long wait for a table.

Waiting for a meal in a busy restaurant can be challenging for hungry adults, let alone kids who have a shorter attention span than we do. If it’s common knowledge that the deep dish takes twice as long as the thin crust at the local pizza place, save it for another time.

Also, keep in mind that many restaurants are used to bringing kids’ meals out first, upon your request.

4. Time it Right

Plan to eat early so your child isn’t overly tired or hungry. It may help you avoid long waits for tables and service, too.

You may not be hungry at 5:00, but after accounting for the drive and waiting for food–it may be 5:45 or later before you eat.

5. Bring Activities to Keep Them Busy

When eating out with young kids, bring small coloring books, small puzzles, and games to keep kids occupied while they wait. You can also try simple games like “I Spy” or a seated “Simon Says”.

But while you’re sharing your appetizers, try not to share your technology.

It’s all-too-common (and tempting) to immediately hand over smartphones and tablets while waiting for a table or food. Whenever you can, try to save them as a last resort. If they are always the go-to choice, children won’t learn to wait patiently, entertain themselves, or understand that different settings call for different behavior.

6. Don’t Count Out Appetizers

Consider ordering a kid-friendly appetizer as soon as you’re seated, or if the restaurant allows outside food, bring a small bag of grapes or crackers to take the edge off your kids’ hunger (or hanger!).

Pre-portioned snacks also keep kids from overindulging and completely skipping the meal.

7. Consider This a Family Date Night

Make sure to include your kids in the conversation. If they feel they are being ignored, your child will find ways to get your attention–and probably, not in the ways you’d prefer.

8. Set Expectations Ahead of Time

After you’ve done plenty of training at home, be clear with kids about how you expect them to act while eating out. Then, explain what the consequences are if they choose to not follow the rules.

“Joey, if you get in and out of your chair, Mom or Dad will take you out to the car while the rest of the family can finish eating.”

Taking the child out of the restaurant isn’t punishment, but it is an indication to you that your child isn’t ready yet.

Train more at home and try again. Most importantly, follow through. If your child is acting up, remain calm and stick to the consequences. Otherwise, your child will learn that he doesn’t have to follow your rules.

9. If the Spaghetti Flies, Stay Calm

If your child can see that her behavior is bothering you, she’s more likely to escalate that poor behavior to engage you in a power struggle.

Remain unfazed by her behavior and follow through with the consequences you discussed during your training.

10. Practice, Practice, Practice

Learning to eat out–how to sit, use appropriate volume levels, use napkins, engage in good dinner conversation, and more–it all takes practice.

The more chances your kids have, the better they’ll get at it.

Final Thoughts

While the 10 tips mentioned above are extremely helpful in curbing the dining-out battles you’re experiencing, the most important thing you can do is get to the root of the issue.

Is your child acting out for attention? Are they engaging in a power struggle because a public place is the perfect spot to do so? Or is your child simply tired, or ill-equipped, to handle eating out in an unfamiliar place?

At Positive Parenting Solutions, we know these tricky misbehaviors are SYMPTOMS…not the real problem.

If backtalk, sibling rivalry, or tantrums–or really ANY frustrating behaviors–are leaving you frustrated and angry, let us help!

I’d love to have you JOIN ME FOR A FREE ONLINE CLASS. I’ll teach you how to get your kids to listen–no nagging, yelling, or reminding required.

As always, we are wishing you all the best on your parenting journey!

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About the Author

Amy McCready
Nationally recognized parenting expert Amy McCready is the Founder of Positive Parenting Solutions® and the best-selling author of The “Me, Me, Me” Epidemic - A Step-by-Step Guide to Raising Capable, Grateful Kids in an Over-Entitled World and If I Have to Tell You One More Time…The Revolutionary Program That Gets Your Kids to Listen Without Nagging, Reminding or Yelling. As a “recovering yeller” and a Certified Positive Discipline Instructor, Amy is a champion of positive parenting techniques for happier families and well-behaved kids. Amy is a TODAY Show contributor and has been featured on The Doctors, CBS This Morning, CNN, Fox & Friends, MSNBC, Rachael Ray, Steve Harvey & others. In her most important role, she is the proud mom of two amazing young men.